Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity today. One reason is that, in recent years, it has moved from being a predominantly physical phenomenon to being simultaneously a political, social, and cultural phenomenon—and thus, a communication challenge. Current research shows that the meaning people ascribe to climate change is closely related to how it is portrayed during communication. Language plays a crucial role in this. Language not only reflects and expresses facts and observations but also influences attitudes and behavior. It helps to represent the reality but can also create new realities. In addition, the climate change debate is particularly multi-voiced, including both explicit and implicit or hidden voices representing different actors and interests. In order to know more about to what extent and in what way language matters, various linguistic and textual studies are undertaken: studies of words, of combinations of words, and of entire texts taken from different contexts, such as scientific reports, political documents, mainstream media, and new social media. Knowledge from linguistic and textual studies contributes to an improved knowledge base for societal and political actions to be undertaken in order to avoid dangerous consequences of climate change.
Jens Wolling and Dorothee Arlt
The annual climate summits (Conferences of the Parties, or COPs) are major political events that receive considerable media attention. In this way, the topic of climate change returns regularly to both the media and the political agenda. It makes sense, therefore, that communication research regards COPs as occasion to investigating how the media cover climate change. Nevertheless, this strategy has two shortcomings: On the one hand the focus on the conferences might provide a distorted picture—because of the political character of the conferences, the role of political actors and policy-related frames might be overestimated. On the other hand, the political character of the conferences is not always considered appropriately. Most research is mainly interested in the coverage on climate change in the context of the conferences and not in the political discussions taking place at the summits. Future research should address these discussions more intensively, giving more attention especially to the debates in the various online media.
Hans Peter Peters
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Global climate change is one of the risks that have become known to the public and to decision makers only through scientific research. Climate scientists were the dominant communicators in the early climate-change discourse, putting the issue on the public agenda, and they remained important communicators in later discourse stages. Among the scientists visible in the mass media coverage on climate change are climate researchers as well as researchers from other disciplines dealing with technical or socioeconomic aspects of global climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Surveys among scientists involved in research on climate change and content analyses of media coverage on climate change show the widespread involvement of scientists in public communication and inform us about their communication-relevant beliefs, preferences, attitudes, and perception of their role as public communicators. Two theoretical perspectives can be used to understand the role of climate researchers as public communicators: medialization of science and specification of the “public expert” role in the science-policy context of climate change.
Peter Weingart’s medialization of science framework points to the media orientation of scientific communicators in the climate-change discourse. The medialization thesis assumes that scientists and scientific organizations have a strong interest in increasing their visibility and caring for their image in the media in order to build legitimacy and raise support for their demands and persuasive goals. The thesis further argues that scientists interested in public visibility tend to adjust their communication behavior and public messages to media expectations and also consider media criteria such as public attention and recognition when making decisions about research and scholarly communication. According to this thesis, the media orientation of science not only affects the public representation of science but also has repercussions for scientific inquiry, which threatens scientific autonomy and constitutes a risk to the quality of scientific knowledge.
The science-policy context of the public discourse on global climate change has important implications for scientists' role as public communicators. Whether or not they themselves recognize it, scientists in the climate-change discourse are not primarily involved as popularizers of their research but as “public experts” whose messages are received—and probably most often intended—as contributions to the understanding, assessment, and governance of risks resulting from global climate change. Scientists construe their expert role in different ways, however. One dimension of variation concerns the readiness of scientists in public communication to go beyond relatively certain facts and also offer interpretations, generalizations, or projections that are uncertain and may be controversial within science. A second dimension concerns its relation to decision making: assuming a guarded role as provider of reliable knowledge to inform opinion formation and decision making of (imagined) clients such as public or politics versus an advocacy role aiming at pushing public opinion and decisions into a particular direction. Some perceptions of the expert role conform more with traditional scientific norms of objectivity and responsibility than others.
Mental models are the sets of causal beliefs we “run” in our minds to infer what will happen in a given event or situation. Mental models, like other models, are useful simplifications most of the time. They can, however, lead to mistaken or misleading inferences, for example, if the analogies that inform them are misleading in some regard. The coherence and consistency of mental models a person employs to solve a given problem are a function of that person’s expertise. The less familiar and central a problem is, the less coherent and consistent the mental models brought to bear on that problem are likely to be. For problems such as those posed by anthropogenic climate change, most people are likely to recruit multiple mental models to make judgments and decisions.
Common types of mental models of climate change and global warming include: (a) a carbon emissions model, in which global warming is a result of burning fossil fuels thereby emitting CO2, and of deforestation, which both releases sequestered CO2 and decreases the possible sinks that might take CO2 out of the atmosphere; (b) a stratospheric ozone depletion mental model, which conflates stratospheric ozone depletion with global warming; (c) an air pollution mental model, in which global warming is viewed as air pollution; and (d) a weather change model, in which weather and climate are conflated. As social discourse around global warming and climate change has increased, mental models of climate change have become more complex, although not always more coherent. One such complexity is the belief that climate changes according to natural cycles and due to factors beyond human control, in addition to changes resulting from human activities such as burning fossil fuels and releasing other greenhouse gases.
As our inference engines, mental models play a central role in problem solving and subjective projections and are hence at the heart of risk perceptions and risk decision-making. However, both perceiving and making decisions about climate change and the risks thereof are affective and social processes foremost.
Methods for Assessing Journalistic Decisions, Advocacy Strategies, and Climate Change Communication Practices
Research in the field of journalistic decisions, advocacy strategies, and communication practices is very heterogeneous, comprising diverse groups of actors and research questions. Not surprisingly, various methods have been applied to assess actors’ motives, strategies, intentions, and communication behaviors. This article provides an overview of the most common methods applied—i.e., qualitative and quantitative approaches to textual analyses, interviewing techniques, observational and experimental research. After discussing the major strengths and weaknesses of each method, an outlook on future research is given. One challenge of the future study of climate change communication will be to account for its dynamics, with various actors reacting to one another in their public communication. To better approximate such dynamics in the future, more longitudinal research will be needed.
Visual representation has been important in communicating and constructing the environment as a focus for public and political concern since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s. As communications media have themselves become increasingly visual with the rise of digital media, so too has visual communication become key to public debate about environmental issues, no more so than in public debate and the politics of climate change.
This chapter surveys the methods, approaches, and frameworks deployed in emerging research on public-mediated visual communication about climate change. Research on the visual mediation of climate change is itself part of the emerging field of visual environmental communication research, defined as research concerned with theorizing and empirically examining how visual imagery contributes to the increasingly multimodal public communication of the environment. Focused on a sociological understanding of the contribution that visuals make to the social, political, and cultural construction of “the environment,” visual environmental communication research analytically requires a multimodal approach, which situates analysis of the semiotic, discursive, rhetorical, and narrative characteristics of visuals in relation to the communicative, cultural, and historical contexts and in relation to the three main sites—production, content, and audiences/consumption—of communication in the public sphere.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Climate change is often perceived by individuals as a scientific, environmental, economic and/or technical issue. Until recently, the moral and ethical dimensions of the issue have appeared to resonate less strongly with many members of the public. Yet for over two decades, climate ethicists and others have argued strenuously that climate change is, perhaps at its core, a moral and ethical issue. What explains this apparent disconnect between normative and subjective perspectives on the moral core of climate change? Research has identified a set of key psychological and cultural mechanisms that influence and at times inhibit individual moral reasoning about climate change and, often, inhibit perceptions of climate change as a moral issue. Moral reasoning and intuitions about climate change in turn influence public engagement with and support for responses to the problem. The research to date suggests several new questions for scholars to examine further, and it offers implications for effective public communication and engagement.
Michael D. Jones and Holly Peterson
Despite scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change and its potentially devastating effects on the earth, public perceptions remain resistant to some of the most important climate change science messages. Science communicators may help the public better understand, accept, and discuss climate change information by incorporating recent findings in narrative scholarship from the academic field of public policy. Narratives help people understand and communicate information by organizing information in a way that is conducive to human cognition. Through integrating research findings from the climate change science communication literature with those from the narrative policy framework’s (NPF) empirical climate change studies, five distinct suggestions for writing effective climate change stories emerge. For the NPF, policy narratives necessarily include characters and policy referents, but may also include plot, setting, policy solutions, as well as other yet-to-be identified components. The five suggestions for writing climate change stories are as follow. First, use narrative form and content when communicating climate change science. Second, identify audience characteristics and articulate the setting of the story (problem, cause, context) in specific, recent, and audience-relevant language. Third, using knowledge about audience beliefs and values, choose characters (heroes, villains, or victims) whom the audience can relate to and will care about. When casting characters, focus on relaying positive emotions associated with motivation and personal control instead of negative emotions associated with futility. Fourth, temporally link narrative components together with specific information about causality, risk, and human agency. Fifth, clearly identify the point of the story in terms of risks and benefits, emphasizing gains instead of losses, and referencing policy solutions with wide support if relevant. Employing such techniques may help correct suboptimal messaging structures that encourage cognitive resistance to scientific information, thereby facilitating information transmission to a larger segment of the population. Additionally, these techniques offer avenues for replicable research designs that may help to further advance the scientific understanding of climate change communication.
Communication campaigns play a key role in shaping what people think, feel, and do about climate change, and help shape public agendas at the local, national, and international levels. As more people around the world gain regular access to the Internet, online and social media are becoming significant contexts in which they come into contact with—or fail to come into contact with—news, debates, action, and social input related to climate change. This makes it important to understand the campaigning that takes place online. Many actors make concerted efforts to engage publics on climate change and go online to do so. These include businesses; governments and international organizations; scientists and scientific institutions; organizations, groups and individuals in civil society; public intellectuals and political, religious and entertainment leaders. Not all are ultimately concerned with climate change or engaging publics as such. Nevertheless, most campaigns involve at least one of four goals: to inform, raise awareness, and shape public understanding about the science, problems, and politics of climate change; to change consumer and citizen behavior; to network and connect concerned publics; to visibly mobilize consumers or citizens to put pressure on decision-makers. Online climate change campaigns are an emerging phenomenon and field of study. The campaigns appeared on broad front around the turn of the millennium, and have since become increasingly complex. In addition to the elements that produce variance in offline campaigns, scholars examine the role of online and social media in how campaigners render the issues and pursue their campaigns, how publics respond, and what this means for the development of the broader public discourse. Core debates concern the capacity and impact of online campaigning in the areas of informing, activating and including publics, and the ambivalences inherent in leveraging technology to engage publics on climate change.
Participation by citizens and stakeholder groups is an important aspect of climate governance at the regional, national, international, and global levels. Increasing awareness of anthropogenic causes of climate change has fueled calls for democratic action and renewal that promise to enrich both existing and emerging forms of political engagement. Participation is not a panacea, however, and has many limitations. Three substantial critiques of participatory and deliberative approaches to climate change hinge on questions of power, authority, and opportunities for dissent. The climate system itself poses unique challenges to democratic governance. Accelerating rates of environmental change associated with climate change make past experience less applicable to current situations and complicate predicting the future even further. As such, participatory and deliberative approaches may need to be reconfigured to respond adequately to the challenges of climate change. Systems approaches broaden the scope of participation and deliberation, and innovative participatory methods are increasingly moving beyond narrow framings of climate change. As deliberative and participatory initiatives become more common, it is no longer a question of supporting or rejecting participatory forms of climate governance. Rather, questions need to address what kinds of consequences will occur and in whose interests certain participatory processes operate. Which social views and values are supported and which are marginalized, and what are the consequences of collective responses to this pressing environmental and social issue?